Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2018 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Friday, September 29, 2017

Games and Dames

          "I find myself enmeshed in conflicts I do not understand, where both sides seem equally wrong."
                              ~ DRIZZT DO'URDEN

          Good morning, friends, and I hope this finds you well.  It's been a week since I posted anything here, and I feel like I should keep things current, even if I don't have much to say.  This is my oldest presence on the world-wide cobweb, having been in my possession since the spring of 2011, sometimes active, sometimes dormant, always reflecting who I was at the time.  Right now, I'm in another transitional phase.  I don't do much besides write and play games in my retirement.  Having worked for a solid fifty years, I'm tired of being "out," and my idea of a long trip is a walk to the mailbox.
          I blog extensively on my writing.com page, and those who have come here for my views on writing and writers should go there for that sort of insight.  It's linked here.  If you're more interested in my fiction, click on the Portfolio tab at the top of the page, and you'll find everything I share laid out for you to read.
          As to this page, what can I do to make it interesting to friends and inviting to strangers, strangers who might accept that invitation and become acquaintances, and dare I suggest it, friends?  As I said, I'm enjoying my retirement by being a hermit, but I do some things, just mostly at home.  You might say my retirement is taking the form of a long staycation.  What I can offer here is a view of myself, and an invitation to converse, to join me in a judgment-free atmosphere and learn something I know, or teach me something I don't.  So, let's get started!

The Legend of Drizzt


          Drizzt Do'Urden came into being in 1988 when R.A. Salvatore was pressured on the spur-of-the-moment to create a sidekick for the giant barbarian Wulfgar, hero of his proposed series of novels based in The Forgotten Realms universe of novels based on Dungeons & Dragons.  The outcast dark elf Drizzt struck a chord with the primarily teenage audience, and Drizzt took over the series that has spanned 29 years, and is still being written today.
          The Legend of Drizzt is a boardgame, part of a series of Dungeons & Dragons boardgames, that seeks to capitalize on the popularity of Salvatore's creation.  It is a cooperative experience for up to five players.  Each player assumes the role of one of the characters of the core group from the books, a band of heroes known as the Companions of the Hall.  They are Drizzt, a magnificent dark elf swordsman, Wulfgar, the aforementioned barbarian, Bruenor, an axe-wielding dwarf, titular king of a lost kingdom, his adopted daughter Cattie-brie, an accomplished human archer, and Regis, a sneaky little halfling, which is a non-trademarked way to say Hobbit.
          All the action in the game takes place in the Underdark, a system of caves far deeper than ordinary caves, where the main dark elf society dwells, as well as a number of others, plus a wide assortment of monsters; most things found there, intelligent or not, are pure evil, and must be dealt with as the game system throws them at you.  Therein lies the game.
          There is a very cool mechanic in which the players build the board as they go.  The board consists of a stack of three-inch tiles which are shuffled and placed to the side.  The party begins the game on one double-size tile, and each time a player moves off the edge of a tile, the next one is drawn from the stack and attached to the edge, causing the map to grow as it is discovered.  Each time a new tile is placed, a Monster card is drawn, and the corresponding goblin, troll, drow, or whatever is placed on the new tile, and attacks using the tactics specified on its card.  The card is added to the hand of the player who drew it, and each time it is that player's turn, he first plays his own character, then the monster as if it were his own character.  There are a number of scenarios that correspond to the stories in the early novels that are triggered by including Special Encounter tiles in the board deck, and when they are drawn, the real fun begins.  As well as fighting monsters, the players can find treasure, heal a limited number of wounds, and have other, non-monster based encounters.  And thereby hangs a tale.
          We played this game two or three months ago, and got our asses handed to us.  We literally had a dead character, which is the condition for losing, by the end of the third turn.  Everyone was content to put this abomination away, and write it off as a ripoff trading on a famous name.  Everyone but me.  I am a huge fan of Drizzt; his books are my favorite stories of all time, so naturally, I was determined to make this game playable, and if no one else would play it with me, I would solo it.  Not much different than reading a book, really.
          So I got it out and began to tweak the rules.  I tried various things to balance it, but nothing heavy-handed.  Sure, I could have weakened the monsters to the point that they might as well not have been there, but there's no satisfaction in a game like that.  I wanted a razors-edge balance where the players would usually win, but come away feeling like they had really done something.  I experimented with each character making a dice roll at the beginning of each turn with certain numbers recovering a point of health for the character.  I considered making the healing potions restore all of a character's life instead of half of it.  I tweaked the monsters' attack dice.  But at the end of the day, the game fixed itself.
          In each scenario, the party starts with a number of healing surges, usually two.  When a character's hit points, usually between eight and ten, reach zero, you spend a healing surge and that character regains half of his starting total.  Once the party is out of healing surges, the next character who reaches zero hit points dies, and ends the game in a party loss.  This was happening with alarming regularity in our first games, and I suspect, though I don't remember, that we were doing something wrong, probably allowing every monster to attack on every turn instead of only on the turn of the player who drew its card.
          Whatever it was, I found a suggestion in the back of the rulebook that if the game is too difficult, give the party an extra healing surge.  I decided that before I tried some tweaked system of my own creation, I would try that, so I set up a scenario with three characters and played it solitaire, following the printed rules meticulously.  What do you know, it worked beautifully!
          So last Sunday we played two scenarios, the first where Bruenor rediscovers his lost kingdom, and the second in which he and his formidable friends drive out the dragon that has taken it over.  We allowed three healing surges, and found that you can easily estimate the quality of your victory by the number of surges you haven't used by the end of the game.  We used two in the first, which I would call a minor victory, and all three in the brawl against the dragon, which I have to say is marginal.  Still, in the immortal words of Bill Cowher, "So what if we won ugly?"
          My conclusion is that if you have obtained what by all accounts looks to be a quality boardgame, and it doesn't play well, don't give up right away.  Examine the rules; you may have made a tiny mistake that ruins the balance.  If that doesn't fix it, consider your tactics; you may have adopted a losing strategy.  Think about what you can do differently, and try that out.  You may find a shining jewel beneath what you thought was garbage.  I know I've learned a valuable lesson that I'm trying to pass along here, and given what people charge for boardgames these days, it is literally a valuable one.
          I would finally like to point out for those who play their games solitaire, by choice or through lack of local players, that this game lends itself very well to solitaire play.  The first scenario is a one-player depiction of Drizzt's escape from the great Drow city of the underdark, and is an excellent learning vehicle.  Be cautioned that when using one character, every monster is going to play in every turn, but that is not the norm, and it's easily possible to learn a very bad habit there.  Once learned, though, the game plays very well solitaire by simply setting up the scenario and playing each character to the best of your ability.  You won't have to fudge the monsters, either, as the tactics of each are dictated by their card.  You can have a wonderful time reliving the Legend of Drizzt either with friends or without!

Downton Abbey

          If you have been living under a rock for the past six years, Downton Abbey was a period piece set at the beginning of the 20th Century that concerned itself with the lives of an extended family of British landed aristocrats, and their interactions with each other and their servants.  I did not watch Downton Abbey in its first run.  I was present in the room for the trailers, and what I saw was a deep, rich period piece whose characters had such earth-shaking problems to contend with as which cuff-links to wear for dinner, and who might be the most profitable aristocrats to marry their daughters.  If I were designing a film to show in prison to torture the inmates, I'm pretty sure it would be close to this.
          Oh, how wrong we can be!  It is our custom to watch various television series in order, one episode per night, over dinner.  My lovely daughter got this as a gift last month, and it went into our rotation.  It came up last week, and we will be watching the final episode of Season One tonight.  Now, don't get me wrong; I still prefer Steve McGarrett racing to dump a hydrogen bomb out of a helicopter off the coast of Waikiki, but Downton Abbey is a different kind of animal.
          First of all, it is filled with intrigue both above stairs and below, as the British say.  The servants jostle one another constantly for position and prestige, sabotaging each other's work, and going so far as to try to get rivals fired or arrested.  Above stairs, the series begins in 1912 when this lifestyle is going into its final phases.  The Titanic has just sunk, taking with it the presumptive heir to the Crowley Estate, and setting in motion a desperate scramble to put new safeguards in place.  Scandals, blackmail, jealousy, and sabotage abound, all those things that make life in the aristocracy worth living, and the result is a show that keeps you hanging on every word and nuance.
          The Lord of the Manor, Robert Crawley or Lord Grantham to use his title, is a decent man who tries to be fair with everyone below him, but with this seething hotbed of intrigue playing out at every level, he is often caught behind the curve.  There is the Lord, his wife, their three daughters and the various suitors, and close to a dozen servants, all with their own agendas.  Add to the mix Lord Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess, who has no real power but does have a real compulsion to meddle in everything she's aware of, and the recipe is complete.  What I really appreciated was that with all these characters getting substantial time on center stage, they made no effort to tell you who to root for.  Nearly at the end of the first season, I have gravitated toward Mary, the eldest daughter.
          Mary is headstrong and self-willed, things a woman is not supposed to be in that day and age.  She is in many ways a symbol of the coming changes.  She is the future of Downton, as with no male heirs, whoever she marries is likely to become the next Lord of the Manor.  I'm not a Brit, and I don't know if I have that part right, but a lot is riding on her.  To her parents chagrin, she has rejected every suitor they have pushed at her, and done it in such a way as to preclude any chance of changing her mind later.  Mary is a flawed character, sarcastic, and unappreciative of the way society treats her, and yet it seems the only way for her to rebel is to choose to live and die an old maid.  She began the series being really nasty, but we have gotten into her motives, and I now have great sympathy for her, and am fascinated to see whether she can lay claim to her own life without giving up too much.
          The actress playing Mary has also caught my attention.  Michelle Dockery brings a visual elegance to the role that makes you instantly believe that she is a titled heiress.  You would never believe her as one of the servants, but as the eldest daughter, she absolutely shines.  Her voice is deep and rich with vibrato undertones that rivet your ear and make you listen; I've not heard an actress with a voice like this since Lauren Bacall.  I don't know who trained her, but I wish he or she could train every actor on the screen.  Her facial expressions and body language are absolutely appropriate to every nuance of every scene, and she can change the tone of any scene she's in with a simple shift of her eyes, or a curl at one corner of her mouth, making you wonder what unspoken underplot you've missed.  She is magnificent.
          This is not to detract from the other actors.  All have been carefully selected for their appearance and skills, and the production values are spot-on in every regard.  You'll believe you are living in an English country house in every way possible.  Here is my final testimonial:  We are wrapping up Season One tonight, and will this weekend be moving on to another season of New Tricks, a British police dramedy.  I like that show very much, but I will be looking forward to our next visit to the spectacular Downton Abbey.
          So, until next week, Play nice, watch out for one another, and take the time to watch some great TV!

~ Jack

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